Inside the Fast and Furious World of Toddler Bike Racing
Pasha Ali was already a hometown hero with sponsorship deals when he lined up for his racing debut in Fort Worth. His family watched from the crowd. His father, two-time Southwest Formula Mazda Series Champion and Team Pakistan A1 Grand Prix World Cup driver Nur Ali, eyed the competition confidently.
Then the race started and Pasha hesitated. The racers pulled away and he sat still, eating their dust.
In a short race, starts are everything. Nur knew that. Pasha did too, but he was and is a resilient kid. He sped down the track and caught, then pulled to the front of, the pack. Improbably, he finished third. It was a hell of an accomplishment for a 3-year-old on a pedal-less, lightweight Strider Bike. Was Ali exhibiting a natural talent that the other 1,000 kids aged five and under who lined up to compete in Strider Bike Racing events last year? Maybe. Maybe not. Doesn’t matter. He did well. He went fast. Dad was proud. Of course he was. His son tried to win, which is all that anyone could ask for and what makes these competitions so fun. Racing, no matter the scale, is about competition, not participation.
While the races are friendly in spirit, the competitions can become very real — but never out of hand. The family friendly introduction to competition at an early age has made the fledgling sport one of the fastest growing toddler activities in the country. The Strider Cup itself is made up of four national races, culminating in the Strider Cup World Championship on July 21 and 22 in Salt Lake City, Utah. There, kids from all across the globe will vie for supremacy.
“My wife and family decided going into the race that we were going to go have fun,” Nur Ali said. “Whether Pasha wins or loses, the goal is to have fun, because he’s only three years old. They kept on hammering that in my head: Remember, he’s only three years old.”
Strider bikes, better known as balance bikes, are designed to get kids riding early and easily. The father of the modern ride is Strider founder and CEO Ryan McFarland, who built his first prototype bike for his son, Bode. Bode was immersed in dirt-bike racing at a young age, learning colors by way of motorcycle brands — green for Kawasaki, yellow for Suzuki, red for Honda, and so forth. But to his great frustration, he wasn’t able to ride a bike like his dad.
“Really, it’s a story of a father who loves riding, and wanted to get his kid riding,” McFarland says.
McFarland, a gearhead from Rapid City, South Dakota, tried duct taping Bode’s feet to the tricycle pedals, but they still slipped. And, anyway, the trike was too heavy; the seat was too high. McFarland noticed, however, that while the trike was insurmountable, Bode could ride his scooter with ease. This led to an epiphany: Why not separate propulsion from riding. In other words, he realized you don’t need pedals to ride.
“Propulsion is just something in and of itself, but riding is balancing on two wheels, steering, counter-steering and controlling a lean — that’s really riding,” McFarland said.
Parents of Strider bike racers say that with the balancing skills learned on a Strider, kids are often able to skip training wheels altogether. Samantha Pavelka, of Greenburg, Pennsylvania’s 2-year-old son Lucas competed in a 2017 Strider race in Pittsburgh. She was amazed at how quickly Lucas was effortlessly gliding everywhere on the bike.
“He’s already balancing,” Pavelka said. “He’ll never need training wheels. He’ll just be able to go to a pedal bike once he gets that coordination down.”
That ease of use was already evident in the prototype. Bode gained rudimentary skills and beyond, exceeding McFarland’s hopeful expectations.
“What I didn’t anticipate was how rapidly his skills would progress, and how far they would progress,” McFarland said. “At 3-years old, he was able to glide down the sidewalk, put his feet up on the footrests on the prototype Strider, and bunny hop over a two-by-four lying on the sidewalk.
Bode’s effortless tricks wowed the McFarland’s neighbors. Strangers started asking where they could get the bikes for themselves. About a year after he built Bode’s first prototype bike, McFarland turned pro, launching the Striker bike brand.
Toddlers easily took to the bikes. Interest in racing among the under-five set was in high gear thanks to the Cars movies. Competing was inevitable. By the time McFarland had 12 finished bikes, his son, nieces, and nephews had their inaugural races, speeding to and from a chalk line drawn on the street.
By 2011, Strider races had taken a more elaborate form. The races lasted an hour and were organized by age group. There were thorough safety checks and scheduled nap times. Kids raced in qualifying heats and matched up with competitors of appropriate skill levels.
“We were blown away by the preparation that was put into the race,” Justin Hewett, of Draper, Utah, whose son Hawk won a Salt Lake City race, said “It was just so well outlined and, I mean, it was a legitimate race.”
Strider Cup race events attract about 250 riders who compete in heats and races organized by four age groups: two-, three-, four- and five-year-olds.They’re high-tech events, tightly organized events that treat the toddler competitors like motorsport celebrities.
“There was an announcer that wasn’t missing a beat at all,” Ali said. “He would remember the kids’ names, what they were doing. He was interviewing them and it felt like a professional sporting event, but for two, three, four and five-year-olds.”
While the Strider Cup events take riding seriously, McFarland stressed that everybody remembers the racers are little kids and acts accordingly. These aren’t pro BMX racers; they’re children who may need encouragement or might panic if a stranger overreacts to a slip.
“We don’t rush over to the child like making him feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re hurt, and this is terrible,’” McFarland said, emphasizing that he’s never seen an injury more serious than a skinned knee. “You fall down in life. We ask if they’re okay and make a quick assessment and say something like, ‘I bet you can catch those guys right there if you get up and go quick.’”
The riders are required to wear appropriate safety gear, like helmets and kneepads. Strider Race parents interviewed for the story were confident about race safety, but they admitted it was easy for parental nerves to get overclocked while watching their kids compete.
“Oh man, it’s totally an emotional roller coaster,” Hewett said. “You’re so nervous for your kids and I mean, our kids did well and we were nervous. Granted, my wife and I are, we’ve been pretty good athletes are whole lives and you know, performed well in stuff, and so we want our kid to be able to do that, too, but you can’t do it for him.”
The competition is friendly and McFarland said families became after seeing each other at different races. But, it’s still a competition. Parents eager to see their kids take home a trophy can take it too far in any sport and the Strider Cup is no exception.
After decades of Formula One glory, Ali found prioritizing fun over victory somewhat unnatural.
“We went in thinking that we’re going to have fun, saw the parents pushing their kids,” he said. “Even my wife at one point noticed that this one parent took the kid’s bike away because he didn’t have a good race in the heat race or whatever. I said, ‘Look, we’re not going to be those parents. This are three-year-olds we’ve got to think about.’”
McFarland stressed that overall, the races are healthy environments that offer a user-friendly entry into the world of racing.
“The vast majority, they’ve got their head on straight, and they understand that we’re here to have a good time,” McFarland said. “We’re here to introduce kids to competition. We’re here to challenge kids, but in an environment where we’re also encouraging them to succeed at whatever we challenge them with.”
After all, there’s a lot of ways to win a race. Sometimes you win it by coming in first. Other times you win it by finishing the course after falling down or even just being brave enough to show up at the starting line. And sometimes, a win on the racetrack leads to lasting victories, like getting a finicky eater to finish his peas.
“He was so excited,” Hewett said. “He thought he was Lightning McQueen, man. He would practice his starts and made sure he ate lots of vegetables. In our family, if you eat vegetables, it makes you faster. It’s so funny, but he was such a picky eater, but now he always makes sure he eats lots of vegetables.”